Love of Shopping is Not a Gene by Anne Innis Dagg. Blistering takedown of the would-be-science known variously as Sociobiology, Darwinian Psychology or Evolutionary Psychology, which theorizes that most human behaviour is genetic and evolved in our primate savannah ancestors. Dagg is a zoologist with qualifications in genetics, so she's particularly good on the studies of animals, and the peculiar lack of genetic detail in their theories.
The book really needs to be read itself: it's under 200 pages, and is written at a popular level. Not sure if Dagg is making a tactical mistake by adopting an opinionated tone: she's open about being a feminist, while sociobiologists are good at adopting a wistful tone of "sadly, the evidence irrefutably leads to a conclusion I favour if I ignore all the other evidence contradicting it.
Overall, the pattern seems to be that sociobiologists are highly selective about the studies they use. They accept unreliable studies with tiny samples if it suits them, but simply ignore much larger studies if they disagree with their conclusion. They take assumptions for granted. They adopt just-so stories that can explain any result. They're also strangely reluctant to think about the details of the genes they hypothesize about, almost never asking whether they're dominant or recessive, or on the X or Y chromosome.
Nevertheless, they've been astonishingly successful at getting mass acceptance for their theories. Their studies are faithfully recorded in the press, and their books sell hugely. The studies are often retracted, as with the "gay gene", but as always the retractions get much less attention than the original study.
A few examples.
I had thought that one of the few examples of successful sociobiology was the universal appeal of a waist-hip ration of 0.7 in women, as a marker of good health. Dagg points to a study of the Hadza tribe of Tanzania1 and the Matsigenka population of Peru2 showing men of both prefer a narrower ratio. She also points out that the ratio of Playboy models has steadily shifted over time 3, which is odd if it's genetic.
More importantly, as a biologist she points out the strangeness of the basic idea of the genetically attractive markers of good health in a species such as humans. Humans, chimps, bonobos and our ancestors live or lived in small groups, where mating choices are limited, and you know a great deal about the other members. years of living in close proximity, you probably know whether the potential partner is sick a lot.
Studies of body and facial symmetry are also popular in sociobiology, where they're assumed to correspond to "good genes", but Dagg points out there's no evidence that they actually do. In animals asymmetry is more likely to be due to environmental stress. In humans at least one study 4 found no correlation between symmetry and health.
The problems aren't restricted to humans either. An idea that's been widely promoted is that male lions kill cubs when they enter a pride, to force the lionesses to bear their own cubs. Dagg points out that this is far from proven: lionesses also kill their own cubs too, and males don't tend to stick around long enough to ensure their own cubs survive. 5
There are also a few interesting insights. Aggressive behaviour in male chimps is used in sociobiology books to show that male humans are intrinsically aggressive. Yet female chimps and bonobos are highly promiscuous, one mating fifty6 times in a day with multiple partners: somehow this never gets applied to human females.
Overall, an important book, clearly written and thoroughly supported, well worth reading. The only problem is the price: £14.01 on the Book Depository: pretty hefty for a slim paperback.
What I'm Watching
Saw the Werner Herzog Antarctic documentary Encounters at the End of the World on DVD. Pretty good, though the commentary could be a bit let verbose. Liked the brilliantly creepy part with the disoriented penguin, frantically running and sliding towards certain death at the heart of the continent.
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